This news is not new, though the cause being cited is different than the last time I read this kind of story.
The official shortage seen in the Houston area is part of a nationwide issue, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. So much so, in fact, that the NFHS — which oversees state associations like the University Interscholastic League in Texas — has launched a campaign called “Bench Bad Behavior,” aimed at providing a remedy for abuse against officials during games.
The NFHS has dedicated resources to its member state associations to improve the behavior of coaches, parents, players and other fans.
NFHS chief executive officer Karissa Niehoff said pre- and post-COVID-19 numbers reveal that around 50,000 high school sports officials nationwide have left the profession.
“Despite our efforts for five years now to do a recruitment campaign, we still realize that loss,” Niehoff said during a Zoom session with national media last week. “We have some numbers that are coming back slowly, but we really want to not only call attention to the loss itself and the crisis itself but the reasons — more importantly, why? What we’ve found is the reasons officials do not stay in the profession really center around behavior.”
When the National Association of Sports Officials conducted its most recent nationwide survey during the summer of 2017 — drawing more than 17,000 participants — 57 percent said sportsmanship toward officials was getting worse. When it was asked who caused the most problems with sportsmanship, parents (39 percent), coaches (29 percent) and fans (18 percent) were identified as the top culprits. When it was asked who was most responsible for improving that sportsmanship, coaches (54 percent) and parents (23 parents) were again the top two answers.
NASO president Barry Mano also stressed the importance of school administrators correcting bad behavior in the stands. He said schools should be doing more to make officials feel protected and appreciated.
“Referees are in charge of the game; we’re not in charge of the environment,” Mano said. “So when a crew of sports officials comes to a site, they need to be better taken care of. They need to be recognized; they need to be secure. Do some things that make them feel welcome, make them feel respected. It’s not about money. We could solve the problem we’re taking about today if we started paying $500 a game for high school. We’re not going to do that. The shortage is not going to go away, so we need to do these other things.”
Over the summer of 2022, the Texas Association of Sports Officials took a hard stance and adopted a new policy aimed at stopping the abuse of officials. The two-section document is short and to the point. The goal is to “collaborate with schools where excessive verbal and/or physical abuse has occurred to provide a safe and more positive climate for all participants.”
The first section of the policy focuses on the abuse and warns that schools will be reprimanded if the TASO presidents council deems there is a culture of failing to control players, coaches or spectators. If those accusations are not met with sufficient action and results, the consequences will be severely punitive. It states, “For schools that fail to address their negative culture of abuse, a notification will be sent indicating that, effective on a certain date, there will be no TASO officials, in any sport, assigned to home games for that school until the issues are satisfactorily addressed.”
Other states also are taking action to battle the issue. The California Interscholastic Association, for example, implemented a bylaw that bans fans who assault officials from attending any future events.
Mano said attacks on officials have become a way-too-common occurrence in recent years.
“Today, we are getting reports in our office every single week of physical assaults against sports officials,” Mano said. “I believe it is important that administrators come to the realization that they are going to have to put some lines in the sand, saying that certain types of behavior are not going to be tolerated.”
Back in 2017, when I last wrote about this, the issue was simple demographics – Texas’ population, which very much includes the school-age population, was growing faster than TASO’s membership, which was trending older. I’m sure bad behavior by fans was an issue then as well, and I’m sure that demography continues to be an issue now, but the bad behavior issue is more acute. I’m a little surprised that the pandemic, which has been blamed for worse behavior by the public in a lot of other contexts, wasn’t mentioned here. I kind of think that a bigger problem is that we have an ever-increasing share of the public that doesn’t feel restrained by the kind of behavioral norms that we all lived by for generations – you know, all that “we live in a society!” stuff. There’s an obvious parallel to modern politics and the behavior of a certain class of politician that I’m sure you can infer on your own.
On that score, I’m a little surprised that there isn’t a lobbying effort to criminalize or enhance the punishment of this kind of abuse. I don’t know that that’s the best way forward, but I do believe that there have to be consequences for being that much of an asshole at a scholastic sporting event, and that it probably does make the most sense to put the onus on the schools to control their own fans. I hope it works.
Meanwhile, there is that other issue, and this time it seems that maybe there’s been a bit of progress.
Recruitment and retention are key components to battling the official shortage, both in Texas and across the country.
When faced with scheduling issues, Simpson started to take action. The Houston Soccer Officials Association does not appear to have a social media presence, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I just started tweeting,” she said. “I got the link on how to become a ref from the HSOA website and started sending it to every college in our area. I sent it to friends. Three actually signed up. I was focused on getting as many refs as we needed to recover so we don’t have to do this (scheduling) plan.”
Another solution is trying to get younger people involved in the profession. For those who have already joined on, it’s about using the available resources to train, develop and retain them.
“As far as the guys doing it, even though there are some younger guys that are having to call games they’re not ready for, the Houston chapter has done a really good job of putting veterans with those young guys and mentoring them, training them and leading them the right way,” Heston said.
Carl Theiss served as a high school basketball official for 26 years and is currently the Bay Area representative on the state board for the Texas High School Basketball Officials Association. He has also spent time on the TASO state board and officiated junior college basketball in the area for more than 20 years.
Theiss said one of his primary goals as a member of the THSBOA education committee is to get younger people involved. It starts with providing an avenue to learn about officiating.
Simpson and Heston are both local high school coaches. I also noted in 2017 an effort by the Houston chapter of TASO to recruit women to be football referees. That subject was not noted in this story, but as I had wondered about TASO’s recruiting efforts back then, I’m glad to see that at least someone is taking action. This really would be a good job for social media, especially if you’re trying to reach a younger audience. Fixing the abuse problem will surely also help, but actively finding the next generation of refs and umps needs to be a priority for these organizations. I wish them luck.